The return of football, at least for the top divisions around Europe, is now in full swing. While the Bundesliga has been back since mid-May, action is also returning in England, Spain and Italy. It may not quite be exactly the same, with games being played strictly behind closed doors, but there is no doubt that for fans – and even players – the return of football is welcome.
Much of the focus in the preparations for the return of football has, rightly, been on the risk to players from COVID-19 and the potential to spread infections unnecessarily. However, there is also another significant risk to players in these unprecedented circumstances that has not being reported on as much – the heightened risk of injury after such a long lay-off.
The concern is about the strength and conditioning of players and their ability to withstand the full loads of training and matches after the unscheduled break in leagues and the shortened preparation time for the return to play.
Although there is always a risk of injury in any sport, there is a much-elevated risk of soft tissue injuries in these circumstances. Indeed, in the first week of the Bundesliga’s return at least half a dozen players suffered injuries — the equivalent of 0.88 injuries per game. This is a significant rise given that pre-lockdown the Bundesliga’s average injuries per game was 0.27.
So as much as the return of football is welcome, player welfare still needs to be prioritised. What can be done to minimise this risk?
The importance of load monitoring
Technology can play a key role in managing the risk of injury in these highly unusual circumstances – in particular motion capture systems. The key is having a true picture of exactly how much ‘load’ is being placed on the lower limbs during training, in the build-up to games and in matches to ensure that players are not exceeding their usual levels and heightening the risk of injury.
This kind of data can be captured by inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors. These devices have the ability to track the movements of athletes and accurately quantify the load involved in every impact between a foot and the ground. Changes of direction, sudden accelerations and decelerations, and landing forces are all captured by high-frequency sensors worn above each ankle, while algorithms transform the data into valuable insights on cloud-based dashboards.
The total load players are experiencing is dependent on the number of steps taken as well as the intensity of those steps. As such inertial sensors can help coaches quickly build up a picture of the ‘total impact load’ for every player during every session and even during each individual drill.
This data can then be used to compare different loading outcomes between left and right limbs, and across the different activities – to help identify any possible risk indicators.
Better data means better management
This level of insight is crucial for coaches to see how players are responding to the step up in intensity as they return to play.
But inertial sensors also enable more fine-grained analysis of injury risk. Were individual sessions or drills producing the expected response from players? Between Drill A and Drill B, which was of higher mechanical load on my athlete? Did players exceed the intended load? Are players exhibiting any abnormalities in their movements?
By answering these questions coaches and physios can quickly respond and adjust their training sessions for whole groups or for individual players – perhaps even withdrawing players from a drill in the moment if the data looks concerning – to minimise the risk of injury as players find their feet again. The key is ensuring that players exposure to their peak loads is managed appropriately and that a gradual path back to match intensity is plotted.
While we are all pleased to have elite sport back, it cannot be at the expense of players’ health and wellbeing. No one wants to see a massive spike in injuries. With the use of motion capture technology, we can go a long way to keeping players as safe as possible.